ORANGE – Cole Winn needed a few innings to locate his groove Saturday night, but once the Orange Lutheran ace found it, there wasn’t much Gahr’s pesky offense could do.
The senior right-hander withstood the visitors’ challenge the first two innings before turning dominant in the CIF Southern Section baseball quarterfinal, struck out 12 in just five innings, and delivered the biggest hits to send the Lancers to the Division 1 semifinals for the first time with a 4-0 triumph before a standing-room-only crowd at Hart Park.
Third-seeded Orange Lutheran (25-7) will take on Capistrano Valley (23-10) on Tuesday at Hart Park, and a victory would set up a title-game showdown with Foothill (24-7) or Bishop Amat (20-11-1).
The last time Orange Lutheran made it to a baseball final was 1991, when it was playing with other small schools at the fifth-tier 1-A level.
The Lancers are big time now, thanks to a lights-out pitching staff that’s thrown eight shutouts, two in the playoffs, and is carrying a 1.35 earned-run average.
“It’s nice to finally break the curse,” Lancers coach Eric Borba said. “This was our sixth time being in the (Division 1) quarterfinals (in 11 years), the first time we’ve won it. We broke the curse finally. The monkey’s off our back.”
Much of the credit goes to Winn, a transfer from Boulder, Colo., who has committed to TCU but has been projected as a first-round pick in the coming MLB draft. He labored through the first two innings, giving up three hits, walking two, and letting Gahr (22-9) get runners to second in both, and then allowed just one baserunner before Christian Rodriguez came on to throw two perfect innings in relief, striking out five.
“I was just too amped up, too excited for the game, and I didn’t breathe,” Winn said. “Once I started breathing – third inning, fourth inning – I started rolling, and it was a lot better.”
Gahr’s aggressive approach at the plate and its hitters’ ability to keep their at-bats alive rattled Winn early, pushed his pitch count to 49 after just two innings, and led to an early departure after he’d tossed 102.
It was just 1-0 then, after Caleb Ricketts singled with a shot up the middle that ricocheted off Gahr left-hander Jason Dressel with one out in the fourth and Winn followed with an RBI double to the gap in left-center, but Orange Lutheran sent nine men to the plate in the bottom of the fifth and pushed across three more runs before Rodriguez took the mound.
Gahr coach Gerardo Perez did all he could to slow the Lancers’ momentum, going to his bullpen four times in the inning as things got worse and worse. He yanked Dressel, who surrendered three hits and walked three, after just one fifth-inning pitch, then pulled right-hander Joel Martinez after he got a popout, then hit Chad Born with a pitch, then started with a 2-1 count on Elijah Burris.
On came Julian Sotelo, who threw two more balls to Burris, then gave up an opposite-field single to Max Rajcic to load the bases. Perez then called on left-hander Darius Garcia, who got a forceout at the plate for the second out. Winn followed with a single to right to bring home Burris, and Garcia then walked Caden Connor and Eric Adolphus to make it 4-0.
Right-hander Anthony Diaz got out of the inning by striking out Jackson Cloyd.
“We ran out two, three guys, and they weren’t able to throw strikes,” Perez explained. “A couple of free passes, and (Orange Lutheran was) able to score some run without having to work too hard for it. (I had a short leash on the pitchers because) your back’s against the wall, it’s 1-0, and you’ve got Cole Winn. You can’t let it get too far away, like 2-0 or 3-0.”
When it did get away, there wasn’t much Gahr could do. The Gladiators got just one hit after the second inning, Michael Perez’s second single of the evening, and didn’t make a whole lot of contact. Seventeen of the 26 batters to come to the plate struck out.
“Cole had to fight for every pitch tonight, and he made some big ones,” Borba said. “There’s a reason why he’s the best pitcher in California and maybe in the country. He made big pitches when he had to, and then Chris Rodriguez came in and was absolutely lights out.
“This team is built on pitching, and I think you saw that today. We’ve got to pitch well, and it gives us a chance if you can pitch well and play defense, and I think we did exactly that tonight. We did what we had to do.”
Gahr was left lamenting the opportunities that got away. Michael Perez led off the game with a single, then, after Xavier Estrada struck out, was picked off at first. Tyrese Turner then singled and Brandon Shiota walked. Winn got out of trouble by striking out Matthew Polk.
Winn struck out three in the second inning – he’d do so again in the fourth – but Gahr got two on again, through Delvan Gomez’s leadoff single and a two-out walk to Andrew Householder. Winn struck out Michael Perez to end the threat, and the Gladiators got on base just one more time the rest of the way.
“I think we were competitive. We didn’t make it easy on them,” Gerardo Perez said. “We had a couple of leadoff hitters on in the first two innings. … Had we (moved them along) and got to a 1-0 lead, 2-0 lead, who knows what would have happened. But at the end of the day, when you face a pitcher like that, you don’t have a whole lot of room for error.”
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